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'Irish' Spaghetti and the power of food and family

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A serving of Irish Spaghetti -- meat sauce on top of spaghetti noodles, on a plate sitting on a set table, with a glass of wine in the background.
Nancy Leson
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Irish spaghetti has been in Ed Ronco's family for generations, and is still made every time they get together.

To understand the recipe I’m about to share with you, I need you to understand that my family is big on stories and traditions.

I grew up in a working-class suburb of Detroit, in an old four-bedroom house that’s been in my family since 1946. It’s where my mom grew up with her three sisters and brother. My bedroom as a child was where two of my aunts slept when they were kids. I grew up watching “Sesame Street” in the living room where my mom aunts, and uncle watched “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

To get me to sleep on hot summer nights (we didn’t have air conditioning), my mom would take me out on the front porch and tell me all about the people who lived on our block in the 1950s. It backfired. I was enthralled by their stories, and to this day I can tell you about Mr. O’Neill’s loud sneezes and how much fun it was to play “farm” with the Shultz kids next door.

But one of the most enduring things in my family is a meal we call Irish Spaghetti.

Let’s get this out of the way, especially for the actual Irish people reading this: It’s not an Irish food. It’s a meal that my grandmother Veronica made in the same kitchen where my mom would cook it years later. Our family is of Irish descent, so this is called Irish Spaghetti with gentle apologies to true Irish cuisine, which is full of wonderful things like breads and stews, salmon and mussels.

My grandmother had seven mouths to feed (including her own) and, by all accounts, this is the recipe that made almost everyone happy. I’m told my grandfather, Frank, would quietly treat himself to a larger lunch at the Great Lakes Steel office commissary when he knew spaghetti was in store that evening.

Frank and Veronica Crowley died before I was born, but Irish Spaghetti lives on. It has been one of many entry points to stories about what they were like. My grandfather, who was quiet but funny, and my grandmother, all of five feet tall, with her own quick wit. Her hair started turning white in her 30s, and sometimes she’d get asked if she was grandmother to her own kids. Depending on how they were behaving, she’d sometimes answer “yes.”

I would have loved them.

This is a meal that’s been in my family for generations, one that we make whenever the family gets together, and one that we’ve shared with friends and neighbors. Some of them really like it. Others don’t. And on occasion, it goes terribly wrong.

In the 1970s, my mom’s oldest brother, Tom, attempted to make dinner for a new upstairs neighbor. He misunderstood that the recipe called for ground cloves, and added a mess of whole cloves that, in his words, made it “taste like Lavoris mouthwash.” He and his gracious neighbor picked cloves out of their mouths as they ate.

Tom tried to cover by saying they were “little shillelaghs” — Irish clubs, sometimes used as weapons, that resemble oversized cloves if you use your imagination and are trying to lighten the mood with a new friend who is wondering what’s suddenly wrong with their sinuses.

When it's made now, Irish Spaghetti sauce contains a single whole clove, bestowing good luck on whoever finds it.

The recipe is below if you want to try it. More importantly, KNKX food commentator Nancy Leson and I would love to hear what recipes you have in your family. You don’t necessarily have to share the actual recipe, but we’d love to hear what foods are special to you and what memories you associate with it. Email us at food@knkx.org.

A decorative plate hanging on a wall, with the recipe for Irish Spaghetti.
Ed Ronco
One year, my aunt had plates made with the recipe written on it. Not sure what year, but it’s been up in my parents’ kitchen as long as I can remember.

Irish Spaghetti
Serves 4

1 to 1½ pounds of ground beef
Half a white onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, minced (or gently crushed, and fished out later, if you don’t like garlic)
¼ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon of ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon of ground cloves
1 28-ounce can of tomatoes (I use whole, but diced works, too)
1 6-ounce can of tomato paste
1 single whole clove (extremely optional)

  1. Brown the beef in a large skillet over medium heat. Pour off the excess grease.
  2. Add the diced onion and let cook until just translucent.
  3. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  4. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg and ground cloves.
  5. Add the entire can of tomato paste and the entire can of tomatoes, liquid and all. If using whole tomatoes, break them up a bit with a wooden spoon. Mix until evenly distributed.
  6. Add a single whole clove for some lucky person to find later. 
  7. Taste often, just because. And maybe to adjust spices, if you want.
  8. Let simmer for up to an hour before serving atop cooked spaghetti, or the pasta of your choice. 

Serve with a side of store-bought garlic bread, and top with grated Parmesan cheese. Fresh is lovely, but the green canister stuff will do.

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Ed Ronco came to KNKX in October 2013 as producer and reporter for KNKX’s Morning Edition. Ed started in public radio in 2009 at KCAW in Sitka, Alaska, where he covered everything from city government, to education, crime, science, the arts and more. Prior to public radio, Ed worked in newspapers, including four years at the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, where he covered business, then politics and government.
Nancy Leson is an award-winning food writer, radio personality, cooking instructor and public speaker who learned much of what she knows about food during her first career: waiting tables. Seattle readers know her as the mouth that scored — for the better part of two decades — as restaurant critic and food columnist for the Seattle Times. These days, when she’s not chatting about recipes or interviewing makers and shakers in the food world for KNKX, she helps end hunger, one loaf at a time, as the Edmonds hub coordinator for the Community Loaves project. Find her @nancyleson and at nancyleson.com.